Analysis: Manipur’s Unending Travails – The Fringe Is Now Coming To The Fore

Analysis: Manipur’s Unending Travails – The Fringe Is Now Coming To The Fore

The emergence of powerful parallel power centres created on narrow ethnic grounds seems to indicate that the chances of bridging the chasm between the warring communities are becoming slimmer with time

Jayanta Roy ChowdhuryUpdated: Monday, February 05, 2024, 09:48 AM IST
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Representational Image | File

On Saturday, in the obscure town of Kangpokpi in Manipur, Kuki-Zo MLAs, including from the ruling BJP, again reiterated a demand for a “separate administration” of the hill areas of the Northeastern state, an euphemism for a separate state or union territory status.

These politicians were responding to what they termed as fresh attacks on their villages in an ongoing nine-month-old ethnic strife between Kuki tribals and plains-dwelling Meiteis in the state and the rise of a shadowy Meitei “cultural” organisation called Arambai Tenggol.

A peculiar situation arose a day after Republic Day this year, when Congress party chief Mallikarjun Kharge wrote a letter to Home Minister Amit Shah, alleging that the Manipur Congress party chief was brutally assaulted and tortured at a meeting attended by all Meitei MLAs and MPs of the state which was “called” by the Arambai Tenggol.

The meeting, held in the heavily fortified Kangla fort, a symbol of resistance to British rule for Manipuris, itself was an unprecedented one. Over three dozen MLAs and MPs, all from the majority Meitei community owing allegiance to all parties including the ruling BJP, were reportedly “summoned” and asked to swear an oath to raise “people’s concerns” as well as sign a document chartering the demand of the Arambai at the fort, which is guarded by central and state forces.

The demands included: the removal of Suspension of Operations (SoO) pact with Kuki militants which had seen the former rebels turning in their arms and being confined to camps supervised by the Assam Rifles; implementation of the National Register of Citizens; fencing of the border with Myanmar, ostensibly to stop movement of Kuki-Chin people across the border; replacement of the highly decorated peace-keepers of the Northeast — the Assam Rifles — from the state; and the removal of Kuki “illegal immigrants” from the Scheduled Tribes list.

Kharge’s letter claims that “many members present in the meeting (on January 24) were compelled and coerced to attend”. If factually true, this is an alarming and unprecedented event in India’s history where a so-called cultural group from one particular ethnic community has managed to get the majority of lawmakers in a state to not only join its meeting but sign on to its demands.

The Meitei outfit — Arambai Tenggol — which surfaced four years earlier as a cultural body, has allegedly been in the forefront of the ethnic conflict which has been plaguing the state of Manipur for the last nine months.

Eyewitnesses claim gun-toting Tenggol volunteers move around in Imphal valley in vehicles openly, wearing black shirts akin to Benito Mussolini’s Squadre d’Azione. These volunteers who are believed to be nearly 50,000 strong are an organised force to reckon with.

The Arambai Tenggol would take the Metei community, which is largely Vaishnavite Hindus, back to a clan-based form of worship called Sanamahism and is reportedly led by a descendant of the Manipur royalty.

That the Arambai Tenggol — which means ‘spear-wielding cavalry’ — managed to hold a meeting at Kangla Fort, which teems with security and intelligence personnel at all times, is a feat by itself. That MPs and MLAs have had to join its meeting is a sign of the immense power that the outfit enjoys in the state.

The meeting and the open display of arms by the Arambai Tenggol also underlines both the erosion of the authority of the formal state and its ability to withstand the pressures exerted by the fringe on it functioning.

The rise in narrow-minded parochialism has affected others too. From all accounts, demands made by Kuki-Zo tribal bodies in the hills on political parties in the state can similarly not be ignored.

In effect all these legislators, whether Meitei or Kuki-Zo, have accepted the demands of parallel centres of power — which may in times to come set the agenda for a constituent state of the Indian Union, one which is vital and sensitively placed on India’s border with a neighbouring country and not elected representatives of the people.

The strife in the hitherto relatively peaceful state has already led to a complete separation of ethnic communities, leaving the Meiteis in command over the Imphal Valley and Kuki tribals confined to the hill districts. Attempts by either side to cross the invisible border between the fertile plains and forested hills can lead to being shot at or worse.

The emergence of powerful parallel power centres created on narrow ethnic grounds seems to indicate that the chances of bridging the chasm between the warring communities are becoming slimmer with time.

Under the circumstances, the state needs to step back into the ring, assert its authority and rise above mere parochial politics. Otherwise, the wounds that afflict Manipur, may well become a cancer which could spread to other parts of the region.

The Kuki-Zo people live in other states including Mizoram, where they are in a majority and in Meghalaya where they are a substantive part of the populace as well as in Assam and Tripura. It is well known that these areas have been restive ever sine violence started in Manipur in May last year.

It will do well to remember that the then Union government had been slow to respond to the food crisis which broke out in the Mizo hills in the 1950s and that led to a rebellion which lasted several decades and could be controlled only with great difficulty after the Indian air force carried out sorties within our own territories.

A similar mistake in handling the crisis which continues in Manipur, could well see the state, which has been a hotbed for militancy in the past, slipping out of control and into the hands of hotheads who may end up being puppets of foreign powers seeking to take advantage of the strife that has beset the ‘Jewel of the Northeast’.

Jayanta Roy Chowdhury is former head of PTI’s Eastern Region network

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